AUGUST 9, 2017
IN JESSIE CHAFFEE’S debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, a young American woman travels from Boston to Florence, knowing no one and speaking little Italian. But Hannah is isolated in a more profound way, estranged from her own identity after a bout with anorexia that has left her life and body in ruin. Hannah is determined to recover in Florence, a city rich in beauty, vitality, and food. She joins a local rowing club and is drawn into Florence’s vibrant present, but she is also entranced by the city’s past ― especially by the lives of the women saints. I asked Chaffee about her novel, the saints, eating disorders, and women’s stories over email.
PAULA BOMER: Many have made the point that women who write about their interiority are dismissed as speaking only to a female audience, or navel gazing, while men who do the same are praised for pondering the deep meaning of what it means to be alive. I’m going to skip past that — and I’m thankful for all those who made that point — and just state that your novel, and Hannah’s life, is absolutely an examination of what it means to be alive, period.
JESSIE CHAFFEE: I appreciate that. I hope that Florence in Ecstasy will resonate with all those who have ever lost themselves, be it to addiction, abuse, or simply the inevitable pitfalls that life presents. Because what is most challenging for my protagonist, Hannah, is not recovering from an eating disorder, but rather figuring out how to rebuild from the wreckage, how to find meaning and move forward. And I think that’s something most people have struggled with at one point or another.
Many of my favorite writers focus on the interiority of women who are, in one way or another, outsiders or on the fringes. I was conscious of writing within that tradition and I believe we need more of it — and we need more people validating work that explores women’s interiority, rather than sidelining it as “women’s literature.”
From a technical perspective, you use the first-person present tense, which usually gives the reader the sense of immediacy and being “right there” with the narrator. And yet there is something so subdued and controlled about Hannah’s voice, in particular her interior voice, which is strong and consistent throughout the novel; it feels removed, the opposite of “right there.” It mimics Hannah’s own many removes — her ability to see herself from outside, her removal from Boston to Florence, her depriving herself of food as a way to control her body and life. Was this intentional or did it just happen?
When I was beginning the novel, I experimented with tense and perspective — I literally wrote the first chapter in first and third persons, present and past tenses, before committing to the first-person present tense for all the reasons you mention. I wanted the reader to be “right there” with Hannah, to feel as immediately and viscerally as possible her anxieties, her fears, and her moments of triumph. The present tense is also the precarious tense. A story told in retrospect offers a kind of assurance that the narrator will arrive, often wiser, at the future moment from which they are telling their tale. But Hannah doesn’t know where she’s going, she doesn’t know if she will, in fact, survive — and neither does the reader. The present tense was vital for maintaining that tension and uncertainty.
I love your question about the feeling of remove and control in Hannah’s voice. It wasn’t something I tried to do intentionally, but it grew out of what I knew about Hannah emotionally — that she is, in many ways, removed from herself. When she was in the grips of the eating disorder, she felt like she was a different person. As she says, it is as though “someone else made war on my body.” A large part of the experience of anorexia is isolation — like any addiction, the disorder becomes the center and everything else drops away, leaving Hannah completely alienated from family, friends, colleagues, herself. So I think anything controlled or subdued about Hannah’s voice grows out of that isolation — a refusal, or inability, to let people in. And that sometimes includes the reader.
On the other hand, despite the deeply introspective interior life of Hannah, she is also constantly looking out at her world. It’s funny, I teach freshman composition and I discuss this idea to write as “Look out, Look in.” And your novel seems to be a perfect example of this process. Hannah is constantly beautifully observing this new city, the world around her. Florence very much becomes a character — setting as character has a long history in the genre of the novel. The importance of place enriches narratives. What were some of your reasons for using Florence in such a way? What works influenced you?
Florence is a very “written” city, and I was aware of writing within and against romantic depictions of it. This isn’t a book in which the place is the answer — rather, Florence is a complicating character for Hannah. One of my main influences is Jean Rhys — in particular, her novel Good Morning, Midnight, which chronicles a woman’s descent into alcoholism. Her protagonist is an outsider in Paris, and the city becomes a friend and foe, sometimes embracing and sometimes attacking her. Hannah’s relationship with Florence is similar. It is a city filled with beauty, vitality, and food. Sometimes that vivacity helps Hannah, and sometimes it threatens her. Florence is also a place filled with history, and Hannah finds that history everywhere — especially the history of the women saints, whose stories help Hannah look inward and better understand her own struggles.
Ecstasy has a multilayered meaning in the novel. I want to focus on how it relates to the high of starvation. Basically, Saint Catherine starved herself to death, and Hannah struggles with the high of food deprivation. When Hannah relapses with her food disorder toward the end of the book, she thinks, “But I am not foggy. I am clear. I am attuned, so attuned, my nerves pulled tight, waiting to be struck.”
Absolutely. Hannah becomes obsessed with the saints because their descriptions of being in ecstasy mirror her own experience with anorexia. In their writings, the saints talk about the high that their mystical visions provide, and then the intense pain and longing that they experience when they are no longer in ecstasy. For many of them, achieving that spiritual state involved not only prayer but also extreme behavior, including extreme fasting. Both their stubborn refusal to eat and their confidence in their mystical experiences ring true to Hannah, for whom anorexia was about much more than not eating. It became her meaning, her church. And part of her survival ultimately depends on rejecting some of what the saints represent, and letting go of the seductive high that this disorder provides.
Two other aspects of “ecstasy” I’d love to hear you comment on are sexual, orgasmic ecstasy on the one hand, and spiritual ecstasy on the other. Do you identify with any religious or spiritual existence? Do you believe in God? This book is so rich in Catholicism because of the saints, and because it’s set in Italy.
A friend once told me that she feels the hidden character in the novel is “Eros,” or desire. I’ve always thought about Hannah’s relationship with anorexia as a kind of abusive love affair. As she describes, “I loved the body that had been wrecked by that stranger. I loved the body and the stranger.” She desires the high that the disorder provides, and that desire is what makes it so difficult to extricate herself. The saints’ descriptions of ecstasy are also filled with desire. They are intensely sensual — it’s incredible that in the 13th, 14th, 15th centuries the saints were recording what read like orgasmic experiences. It’s spiritual, but it’s also bodily. It’s about God, but it’s also about these women and their desires. What’s paradoxical for both Hannah and the saints is that in achieving ecstasy, they’re also in some sense erasing their bodies and beings.
I don’t subscribe to a specific dogma, and Catholicism is not a part of my own personal history, but I’ve always been drawn to the ritual and quietude that religious spaces provide, and I often seek them out. And I’m interested in how others find meaning, whether it’s the Ancient Greeks looking into the void, calling it chaos, and creating their own reality; St. Catherine envisioning a mystical marriage to Christ; or Hannah giving herself over entirely to the strict behaviors that an eating disorder dictates. Because Hannah is in Italy, it’s inevitable that she encounters Catholicism, which is so present and so local, but what she finds isn’t the Catholic Church — it’s Catherine in Siena, and Margaret in Cortona, and Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi in Florence, women who give her a language for understanding herself, a language that for them was rooted in religion but that for Hannah speaks to a broader search for meaning.
Hannah often says, “I don’t feel lonely,” but as the reader, I didn’t really believe her. Loneliness is truly one of the worst things in life, in my experience — alienation from the world around us, too — and Hannah desperately wrestles with these feelings. In that way, she’s somewhat unreliable.
Hannah is lonely at many points in the book, and she sometimes denies the extent of her loneliness. Like any addiction or trauma, an eating disorder has its own language, reserved for those who have lived it, and that isolates Hannah, too, because she feels others won’t be able to understand it, or that she won’t be able to find the words to articulate it. There are also moments in the book in which Hannah feels her solitude acutely, but in a way that is not lonely or alienating — when she’s alone in a scull on the Arno River or when she’s walking in the hills outside Florence, for example, and she experiences a kind of ecstasy of place and self, a feeling of connectedness that can only be experienced alone. In those moments, solitude is a balm for her.
I love Hannah. I love her weaknesses, her vulnerabilities, her strengths, her super “attuned” relationship to her body in regard to food, exercise, sex, but mostly I love that she is trying so hard to take care of herself, and knows that she must. Sadly, in a conversation with her sister, this is seen as “selfish.” She thinks, “I am selfish. And I was selfish before.” This irks me, but it’s a truth I’d like you to comment on — why is taking care of ourselves seen as “selfish” as opposed to necessary?
In a recent review, the writer described Hannah as being selfish in the way that a drowning person is, and I think that’s exactly right. Hannah is trying, quite literally, to survive, and that means stepping out of her life and trying to find another path forward. Her presence isn’t going to be of use to anyone if she doesn’t manage to stay alive. And of course there are all the complications of the expectations placed on women to be nurturers, to be self-effacing, to sacrifice themselves for others, which brings me back to your first question — I think it is far more likely that a woman caring for herself will be labeled as selfish or self-important, while the same charge won’t be leveled at a man in similar circumstances. So in some sense, Hannah’s self-care/selfishness is an act of rebellion. She’s not unlike the saints, who stepped out of the lives they had been expected to lead, as wives and mothers, and found their own paths.